Air Force Zero – Analog Corner
Stereophile|September 2021
Spring cleaning
By Michael Fremer

I don’t like being pigeonholed as a reviewer of exclusively expensive audio components—because I’m not, as anyone who regularly peruses Analog Planet knows. So, to ease the pain of reviewing the half-million-dollar Air Force Zero turntable—you’ll find that review on p.53 of this issue—I figured I’d cover some more reasonably priced analog gear here in Analog Corner.

Plus, I need to do some spring cleaning and tidy up a few loose reviewing ends: Only products reviewed in Stereophile qualify for the Recommended Components list, so when I review something at Analog Planet that I think should be on that list, I need to cover it here, too.

Take, for instance, QHW Audio’s The Vinyl MM/MC phono preamp. (QHW stands for “Quality Hi-Fi Works.”) See my full review at Analog Planet.1 This exceptionally fine-sounding phono preamplifier currently sells for just $786.96 including shipping to America, from Spain, where it’s designed and manufactured by Francisco Vizcaya Lopez, a music professor, concert performer, and composer with engineering skill sufficient to allow him to design this exceptionally fine-sounding phono preamp and several other hi-fi products.

When I reviewed it last April, the cost was even lower, at $644.83. The price fluctuates because Mr. Vizcaya Lopez pegs the price to currency fluctuations—exchange rates—instead of building in a price cushion. It’s a more consumer-friendly approach.

The MM input uses a QHWdeveloped AE2270 op-amp, not an off-the-shelf one. The MC input, which has gain that’s switchable in steps between 63 and 69dB via rearpanel DIP switches, utilizes discrete bipolar transistors. The specifications are impressive, as is the sound—and as is a smart design that allows you to simultaneously connect two turntables and independently configure an MM and an MC cartridge. By using the outboard step-up transformer (SUT) of your choice on the MM input, you could connect two MC cartridges. You can hook them both up and select between them, but to do so you’ll need to flip a switch that’s on the rear panel.

Construction, including high-quality, panel-mounted RCA inputs and output jacks, is well beyond expectations for the price. The outboard power supply is a hefty 36V DC unit with IEC-jack termination so you can play with AC cables, and the front fascia is a nicely finished brushed-aluminum plate.

I reviewed “The Vinyl” using the SME M6 turntable that I reviewed in the May Analog Corner.2 For cartridges, I used Ortofon’s Cadenza Black MC ($2879) and the 2M Black LVB 250 MM.3

That turntable and the Cadenza Black cartridge are priced beyond what most “The Vinyl” buyers will use with it, but the phono preamp proved up to the challenge. The LVB was a better price match ($999); it, too, was reviewed on Analog Planet, and it too is worthy of Recommended Components inclusion (although 16-year-old Nathan Zeller, Analog Planet’s newest young writer, prefers his less-costly Mobile Fidelity UltraTracker, which I have never heard—nor have I ever heard a Mobile Fidelity turntable. Too bad: The Mobile Fidelity ’table was designed partly by Allen Perkins, of Immedia and Spiral Groove, and I’ve been a fan of his work for decades.).

I auditioned The Vinyl for Analog Corner with the Monty Alexander LP Love You Madly: Live at Bubba’s, a 1982 live-to-24-track analog-tape recording (Resonance HLP 9047). In the review, I wrote, “I promise, you’d never know you were hearing it through a $619 phono preamplifier. The acoustic bass was so natural and well-controlled, the drums immediate and natural-sounding—particularly the cymbals and rim shots—and Alexander’s hard-driving piano produced dynamics and convincing timbral verisimilitude. Add a transparent, generously sized soundstage presentation that had width, height and especially depth (percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. placed well behind the piano, stage right, whether or not that’s from where he actually played) and top it off with “you are in the room” applause, and you have both a really great recording and a ridiculously good phono preamplifier that I think you could insert into your system and fool the most demanding audio fanatic into thinking it cost ten times what it actually costs. And it’s quiet. … Way highly recommended.”

I recently got hold of an old AR turntable—a rare TA model, which has two motors, one of them to get the platter spinning in the correct direction. It didn’t include a headshell, so I ordered a 3D-printed one on eBay for $50 and to honor the late Len Gregory (aka “The Cartridge Man”). I installed in it the original Cartridge Man Music Maker cartridge that starts life as a Grado moving iron design. This one had been sitting in its red pill box for more than 20 years. I placed a Funk Firm Achromat on top of the bare platter and plugged it into The Vinyl.

Even with overhang unset (because at first I didn’t know you could move the armtube to adjust it), the sound produced was laugh-out-loud sweet! Anyone hearing this and thinking about getting into vinyl would stop thinking and start doing

SHAKNSPIN

Measuring a turntable’s platter-speed performance can be tricky. I still use the discontinued Platterspeed app, for consistency. I run it on an older phone on which I choose not to update the operating system. I’ve used it for years, and though it requires a test record and some people don’t trust it, I feel that as long as I use the same test record each time, the results will at least be consistent.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine